Meaning of Ramadan and Laylat al-Qadr

Encountering Some Difficult Questions

Muhammad Maroof Shah
Srinagar, Publish Date: Jun 13 2018 11:47PM | Updated Date: Jun 13 2018 11:47PM
Meaning of Ramadan and Laylat al-Qadr

Despite countless sermons and FAQ sessions during Ramadan, a few basic questions remain to be clarified and it seems most Muslims have yet to know the secret or key of the whole thing from fasting to iʿtikāf to laylat al-qadr and, one fears, that is why they only experience hunger and thirst and not proximity to God. Such questions include why is there, generally speaking, silence in the Quran/traditions regarding any punishment for those who though believe fasting as one of the pillars of Islam routinely fail to fast or who never fast (as against very clear elaborate descriptions about those who miss prayer/zakat) – we find promise of reward and call for fasting but silence on corresponding threat of punishment for missing without any excuse? There is a special gate reserved for those who fast in Heaven but none in hell for those who miss it. Very few note that God doesn’t hold us accountable for not offering tarawih in congregation routinely as it is sunnah al-kifaya meaning, like funeral prayer, not all are obliged to attend. Why is it the night and not the day that is chosen to be blessed or grand? When does laylat al-qadr fall on the poles where nights come after six months? How come some Muslim scholars have maintained that shab-i-qadr hovers around the whole year and for some every night is virtually laylat al-qadr? What about those living during Ramadan in space or far from the earth where we find perpetual night or routine conception of day and night inapplicable? Why is this night chosen as the night of destiny? Is this purely arbitrary on the part of God? Why should it be associated with night and not day everywhere if it corresponded to daytime in one part of the world when it was night time in Mecca when the Quran began to be revealed? How do we account of discrepancies between traditions/scholars or between Shias and Sunnis on emphasized dates for finding it? And what about some claims of special insight and intimacy regarding it? Why is it particularly Jibriel and angels that descend and why peace and why till the break of the morning? What dawn is this? Given Nawawi’s point that “None is granted the benefit of its excellence except he to whom God shows its exact occurrence”  and  Mawardi’s warning that “And it is desirable for him who knows it, not to reveal it” we, building on Masters of gnosis, allude to certain hints that might help with our bafflement over such questions. 

Given over forty interpretations of what is meant by the Night of Power and the debate still live, many interpretations of “with every command” and “Spirit” and reference to “peace” we may consider that our philosophers/hukama and Sufis have also written exegesis of the Quran and sought to clarify these questions in principle. So those who wish the key to these otherwise troubling questions unsatisfactorily dealt in exoteric commentaries and fiqh manuals should take the trouble to turn to them. One can name many esoteric commentaries on whole of the Quran/selections such as those of Maybudi, Kashani, Ruzbihan al-Baqli and Ismail Haqqi Bursewi (available in English/ Urdu translations as well). Tafsir-i-Nayeemi also contains brief but crisp summary of esoteric meanings alongside conventional exegesis and one’s heart and mind gets readily convinced at many places. For Ibn ʿArabī, the laylat al-qadr refers symbolically to the body of the Prophet.  For Qāshānī it is  the 'Muhammadian constitution' (al-bunya al-muhammadiyya). Ibn Arabi states that “ fasting is non-action, not action.”  “It is a non-existent intelligible and negative attribute.” “there is nothing like it since it has no source which is described by understood existence. This is why Allah said, "The fast is Mine."  “Every action of the son of Adam is His except fasting. It belongs to Allah.” Who claims that he fasts as an act of worship doesn’t know what worship is and how fasting is to surrender all claim of being this or that or, say, pious. Tustari’s commentary notes: “On the Night of Great Merit [the descent of] mercy upon His servants was decreed. That is, safety from the cutting off  of the states of those who have gnosis of Him (ʿārifūna bihi), and those who preserve with Him the limits of the ordinances concerning the commands and prohibitions.” Correspondence between the Biblical “the Word made flesh” and laylat al-qadr and profound significance of reciprocity of laylat al-qadr (descent) and laylat al-miraj (ascent) has been argued for by Schuon. To quote Schuion “The Name Muhammad designates the particular mystery of Revelation, of the “Descent” (tanzil), hence “the Night of Destiny” (Laylat al-Qadr) during which the descent took place.” The Name Ahmed designates correlatively the mystery of the Ascension (Mi’raj), hence of the night journey…” Luminous moments that are bestowed to us, to mystics, artists and ordinary mortals, functionally correspond to laylat al-qadr. Muslim practice in last few odd nights of Ramadan helps realize but doesn’t exhaust means to find reality of luminous night/life lived sub species aeternitatis.

Ramadan is an invitation from God to experience Him on the other side of hunger and thirst. Abu Yazid Bastami has remarked that “When a man is hungry, his heart sends down the rain of wisdom.” About Pharoah it has been remarked that he would have been saved if he had tasted hunger. Indeed “If you try fasting and find out how easy it is and what comfort it brings and how close it brings you to Allah, you will never give it up.” Welcoming fasts is a test case for proving that man is not to be identified with the body or mind but spirit that feeds on nothing physical or mental. Reading Simone Weil on affliction, necessity, gravity and decreation clarifies the providential significance of Quranic declaration that “Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties [in exchange] for that they will have Paradise” and “man has been created in trouble” and Ramadan means burning (needed in proportion to strength of attachment to flesh that it cuts) or courting trouble to seek the dawn that is not followed by any dusk. 

 Isn’t it remarkable that we find only solitary report(s?) from the Prophet (S.A.W) mentioning punishment for breaking the fast before time (and not missing it in the first place)? This can’t be read as unequivocal evidence of missing fasts leading to posthumous punishment. It has been rightly noted by our Ulama that God anticipates that it is ordinarily hard to pass the test of hunger and thirst or abstention from lust for believers and that explains why He has offered only reward for fasting and not the converse punishment for missing it unless we, somewhat problematically, interpret depriving from the reward as a sort of punishment. Given different degrees of Paradise, we can’t say that those in the lower rungs are punished. However, given we may all have transgressed we would be in need of fast’s intercession to save. Religion is discipline of self and as such a believer is, by very definition, inclined to fast. It is another matter that God may take a lenient view of view of human, all-too-human failure to truly fast. He is not interested in self-inflicted torture of the old and the sick and the children and vast number of those who keep thinking of food all the day and pounce on it at iftar. What Ghazzali has distinguished as fasting for the elite and the elite of the elite (controlling lusts of different senses and passing thoughts of past and future/distractions of mind respectively) is often absent amongst Muslims. The means (abstention from food/water) has turned into an end and fasting is, for many Muslims, a ritual sans spirit. 

Fasting is for taqwa which means “fear of doing wrong because of consequent suffering rather than fear of God.” Few know that fear of God is more akin to awe and reverence (read Heschel for details) for what we cherish/idealize or what commands such response due to inherent grandeur – and that explains probably singling out punishment for those who defy God/Norm/Community’s rhythm and pre-pone iftar. Cosmic Policeman imagery regarding God we have interiorized is an insult to human dignity, freedom and God. Few Muslims know about the position within Islamic tradition that there is no hell at all for believers (read Maqalat-i Ihsani for a brilliant summary of this position) though this doesn’t mean any form of posthumous punishment including that in grave or during proceedings of the Day of Judgment is also absent. God is not a Police Officer who is interested in imposing month long curfew against normal demands of body but ground of certain standard of spiritual excellence (for which controlling desires like lust for food has been a tested means) we are invited to achieve for our own good. 

If one is really interested in the essence of Ramadan, one would not indulge in such debates as 8 or 20 cycles of Tarawih. Offering Tarawih in congregation is a sunnat-i-kifaya that community as a whole rather than every individual may be accountable for. One doesn’t fight over gifts/devotional hymns or love songs offered at the feet of the Beloved that nawafil are for various believers. All that matters is how much we are in our rituals, not quantity. One night of laylat al-qadr, one tarweeeha, one sacred tear wept with all one’s soul and mind may suffices for life/ salvation. Calculus of sawab applied for polemical purposes is jarring to good sense.

Ramadan as an invitation to an adventure of Spirit, a sort of mountaineering experience sought for the sublime joy and grandeur of it hides, is not for the weak and the sick and the children. For those who are haunted by the body’s demands may be wished well and one may hope God has other mechanisms to bring them to Himself. One can’t boast of one’s ability to fast and think low of anyone who fails. One never knows what compels the other not to fast. Fasting is a and not the means to achieve Taqwa. It is against the ethics Islam inculcates to enquire of people if they are fasting. They might be embarrassed to tell the truth and might resort to lie in many cases and as such the culprit is one who asks the question. 

If one attends to Ramadan in letter and spirit (fasts as Ghazzali would define its highest degree, goes in seclusion, seeks/accesses layalt al-qadr or opens his heart to the saving Word or the Quran) one has virtually completed important stations in Tariqah and one is saved. What a reward! It is a love letter written from a waiting God that few can truly read and respond to. One wishes such letters were written too frequently and not just once in a year.  

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